April is Sikh Awareness month which is incredibly important this year due to what is currently happening in the Punjab by the Indian Nation State. If you haven’t heard about the government shutdown largely targeting Sikhs, you can read here. To keep the focus on the Sikh Community, this post will be focused on the amazing royal turning fierce activist and suffragette – Sophia Duleep Singh.
Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh who ruled in the Sikh Empire. She was born royal even through her kingdom had been taken over by the British Empire. Her family made the most of their situation and through their tenacity, honor, and dignity caught the eye of the British Crown. Her father was a close friend of Queen Victoria, even gave Queen Victoria the honor of becoming godmother to Sophia. She was born in 1876 in Belgravia, London. During Sophia’s life, she had access to the palace grounds. She was the granddaughter to the late Maharaja Ranjit Singh who ruled the Sikh Empire from 1801-1839.
Ranjit Singh was known as Sher-as-Punjab, the lion of Punjab. The infamous Koh-I-Noor was part of their treasury. This jewel has religious and mythical ties all the way to the Vedas and is said to contain the light of the universe. After the very prosperous and peaceful reign of Ranjit Singh, the region suffered many loses both by violence and death. Ranjit’s youngest son, Duleep Singh was 5 years old when he was crowned ruler. The British, under the offices of The British East India Company made a deal with two of the young ruler’s advisors during the First Anglo-Singh War in 1845 which gained them access not only into the region but its resources. The British were able to convince the young ruler (by imprisoning his mother) to enter into an alliance which would later become one of the reasons for the dissolution of the autonomous Sikh Empire. With the signing of the Treaty of Lahore in 1849, the British gained control of the Koh-I-Noor diamond which would go on display in 1851 Great Exposition.
Prince Albert would commission a reworking of the diamond which reduced its size by half and is now part of the British Crown Jewels and was worn quite frequently by the Queen Mother of Queen Elizabeth II. (It has been rumored that Camilla, will wear the same crown for the coronation of Charles III.)\
The effects of imperialism and colonialism did a lot of damage not only in the Punjab but also in the Singh family. Maharaja Singh and his daughter became utterly dependent on the British Crown for their livelihood even providing housing in London. When Sophia was ten, her father attempted to take his family back to India but were denied and caught. Her father would died in Paris in 1893.
Sophia was allowed access to her inheritance but Queen Victoria became heavily invested in Sophia’s upbringing – encouraging Princess Sophia to become a socialite, adopt modern ‘western’ dress and gave her a residence at Hampton Court Palace. She was starting university to study Chemistry when she was able to secretly return to India. The initial trip in 1903 was the first step for the awakening of Princess Sophia. She would return to India in 1907 and witness the poverty and realities of her people since the Treaty of Lahore. During this trip, Princess Sophia would meet with Indian Independence Activists, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai.
A BBC documentary can be watched here
When Princess Sophia returned to London in 1909, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and became one of its leading members. She would not only donate money, she would instigate weekly ‘self-denial’ protests where people would refuse/deny/refrain from everyday luxuries and donate the money back to their causes.
On November 18, 1910, historically known as Black Friday, Princess Sophia was one of the leading 400 demonstrators to Parliament alongside Mrs. Pankhurst. 150 women were assaulted in this demonstration by police. Later reports came out that the assaults not only were physical but also sexual which both police and male bystanders perpetrated in.
Princess Sophia would retreat from public view and activity but still maintained her work alongside fellow suffragettes and activists. Princess Sophia become part of the Women’s Tax Resistance League. Their slogan “No Vote, No Tax” propelled Sophia to stop paying taxes to the British Crown. Her contributions, leadership, and resistance led her to be cited multiple times and some of her possessions were impounded. Princess Sophia would then start to willingly sell her possessions not only to gain access to funds but to also deny the Crown from claiming them. Her ties to the Royal Court and her royalty did shield her from being arrested as the police did not want her notoriety to be used.
Sophia also started to actively sell The Suffragette newspaper even at her home in Hampton Court Palace. The start of World War I, propelled Princess Sophia into new causes. She participated in a 10,000 women’s protest march on the prohibition of a voluntary woman’s force. She volunteered for the Red Cross and became a nurse where she worked in a military auxiliary hospital that tended to wounded soldiers from the Western Front. She would become heavily involved with the medical treatment of South Asian soldiers. Large amounts of Sikh Soldiers were said to have been overwhelmed when they realized their nurse was the Princess Sophia, the granddaughter of the Maharaja of the Sikh Empire.
Princess Sophia became a large voice for the contributions of Sikh soldiers, maintained her participating in voter rights even after the 1918 Representation of the People not just in England but started to take on global voter rights. She passed away in 1948 at the age of 72. Her legacy was the fight for equality, freedom, and the right to vote.
Alexander, Michael and Anand, Sushila, Queen Victoria’s Maharajah: Duleep Singh 1838-1893 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980)
Anand, Anita, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary (Bloomsbury USA, 2015)
Bance, Peter, The Duleep Singhs: The Photograph Album of Queen Victoria’s Maharajah (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2004)
Crawford, Elizabeth, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (London: UCL Press, 1999)
Rai, Bali, The Royal Rebel: The Life of Suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (Barrington Stoke, July 2021)
Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain. 400 Years of History (London: Pluto Press, 2002)
***Additional Online Resources
2 thoughts on “Herstory Profiles: Indian Royalty, Suffragette, Women’s Rights Activist by Anjeanette LeBoeuf”
so many unsung remarkable women
I love this series bringing unsung women into our consciousness